GILA BEND, Ariz. – Four Mexican men sit in the dirt with their wrists bound, shoulders hunched and eyes lowered to avoid the glare of the rising sun.
The immigrants had been on their way to build a dairy farm in this town about an hour southwest of Phoenix. But after a traffic stop for a faulty brake light, members of a sheriff's task force targeting human and drug smugglers found they were not U.S. citizens. Now they were bound for federal custody.
Beginning Wednesday, more illegal immigrants coming through Maricopa County could meet the same fate as the sheriff's department beefs up its efforts to find illegal immigrants.
A 250-member posse that will operate similarly to the anti-smuggler task force will patrol the area for illegal immigrants who pay smugglers to cross through Arizona, the busiest illegal entry point along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
The posse will be made up of existing sheriff's deputies and members of the department's 3,000-member posse reserve of trained, unpaid volunteers.
The four illegal immigrants pulled over Monday will be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent back to Mexico. But those that are captured by the posse may end up in jail, charged under a state law that has been used against more than 100 illegal immigrants in Maricopa County this year.
The law made human smuggling a state crime in Arizona — it was already a federal crime — allowing local law enforcement agencies to arrest suspected smugglers. It was meant to crack down on smugglers, but under a disputed interpretation, County Attorney Andrew Thomas argues the law can be applied to the smuggled immigrants themselves.
Thomas maintains illegal immigrants who pay smugglers to enter the United States are committing conspiracy to smuggle and can therefore be prosecuted under the state law.
The sheriff's office began arresting illegal immigrants under that interpretation in March, and with the new posse, will continue doing so by patrolling desert areas and main roadways in the southwestern part of the county.
"I'm going to catch as many as I can and throw them in my jail," said Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "And the jails are not that nice."
It remains to be seen whether a judge will uphold the smuggling law as applicable to illegal immigrants. Lawyers for some arrested illegal immigrants have filed motions to have the charges dismissed.
A Los Angeles attorney brought into the case by the Mexican Consul General's Office in Phoenix filed another motion claiming Thomas and Arpaio are violating state and federal law and are using the conspiracy charges to control illegal immigration, which is the federal government's job.
Arpaio said the motions don't worry him.
"I get sued when I go to the toilet. You think I'm worried about it?" he said. "If they think I'm going to slow down because of these threats, I've got news for them — I'm not going to slow down. I'll do more of it."
Alfredo Gutierrez, a Hispanic activist and former Democratic state senator, called Thomas' interpretation of the law and Arpaio's use of it "political pranks."
"Every act like this contributes to the angst and anger and desperation in our community," Gutierrez said.
Elias Bermudez, president of the pro-immigrant group Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, or Immigrants Without Borders, questions the legality of the immigration posse itself.
"It is racial profiling," he said. "They don't follow guys that are blond and blue-eyed."
Bermudez said Arpaio is "a good criminal sheriff, but he needs to go out there and find criminals. He wants to go after the poor, undocumented immigrant who is hungry and thirsty in the desert. That is totally inhumane."